Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Altar

I'm both sad and happy to be writing be writing this last blog: sad because it is the last one, and happy because I have a sense of coming home as I reach this point in my life. I shall, however, be making a monthly contribution to our regular website blogs, so you can keep in touch there, if you'd like ( Also on the website, there will be a video clip of highlights of the profession Eucharist.

Well, July 11 was undoubtedly full of grace! During the past week, I'd been conscious of a nervous anticipation about making profession, but it was more about preparing for the ceremony and wanting it to be meaningful for  me and all those who attend, rather than about my choice. I was sure I was called by God when I entered in 2007. At first profession, in 2009, I was making a lifelong commitment in my heart, so my perpetual profession in 2012 is simply a confirmation of what I had already promised. Seeing perpetual profession in this light has enabled me to be fully present to each moment and to enjoy this very sacred time in my life.

So, what was the day like? I felt carried by the prayers of all those I knew to be praying for me and thinking about me wherever in the world they were. In the chapel, I felt entirely surrounded by good wishes, support and care. People, music, liturgy all conspired to lift my spirit toward the light. They didn't distract me at all; instead, they helped me to focus on God, and my experience was characterized by a sense of what I can best describe as sacred intimacy. At the same time, I was conscious that I was making profession in the name of the Church, which is something greater than individuals or single issues. In my profession, I consciously gave myself within, in the words of the Creed, "the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Church" which Christ founded.

The highlights of the service were when I made the promises of stability, fidelity to the  monastic way of life (conversatio) and obedience, signed the profession document, sang the Suscipe ("Receive me, O God, as you have promised and I shall live/Do not disappoint me in my hope"), prostrated before the community to ask for their prayers, and was blessed and received by them. For me, however, the most profound experience was seeing the prioress lay my signed profession document on the altar where it remained throughout the sacrifice of the Mass, symbolizing how, in committing myself to monastic life, I had given myself over completely and unreservedly to God. Beyond that, I felt myself united with the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, which we celebrate in the Eucharist. I didn't have a moment of understanding the mysteries of the universe (the waters remain murky), but I did feel myself to be at one with divine unknowing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pascal's Dice

I think I must have accidentally deleted the original of this, published July 4, so here is a copy.

A week to go before profession. I feel centered. I don't know what the rest of my life will hold, but I feel assured that I am called to live in this community according to the Rule of St. Benedict. In the words of the psalmist, "I am confident and unafraid."

Being confident and unafraid is not the same as being unaware. I walk towards July 11 still in the understanding that I am choosing to do this freely, and in the knowledge that I could be getting it wrong. I don't mean getting it wrong at the level of making a mistake about doing what's best for me, but getting it wrong at the deeper level about the primacy of the search for ultimate meaning.

There are certain authors who write something which speaks to me profoundly, and however often I read it or think about what they wrote, it gives me a renewed sense of rightness, of having hit a primal truth. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French Catholic writer, philosopher, physicist and mathematician is one of these. In the Pensees, he speaks of how human beings are faced with a choice: to believe in God or not. Either God exists or God does not exist: there is no middle road. He likens our choice to a game of dice. The game is in play. You must bet, for or against God and, when you've placed your bet, everything, EVERYTHING hangs on the roll of the dice. That sums up how I feel at this moment. I am staking my whole life, for God, on the roll of the dice. I have no guarantees about the outcome. I am reaching for Infinite  but, because I am not infinite, I am always reaching forward into mystery and darkness. I am standing on the edge of a cliff and I understand I'm launching myself into darkness. To my great surprise, I don't feel anxious, I don't feel uncertain. On the contrary, I feel completely calm. The moment is at hand when I shall say a universal "YES!"

My resolve is firm, but it is also a great comfort to have the prayers of friends. I'd like to ask those of you who have been accompanying me on my journey to pray for me in these next days. You might be surprised at how large and diverse our "blog community" is. I have been. There have been over 3,000 hits since I started writing in January, coming from 36 countries across the globe. Thanks to all of you for listening and sharing my journey.

By the way, it might be Thursday next week (July 12) when I publish the last in the series. I think July 11 is going to be rather full ... of grace, I hope!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Personal Prayer

I have been somewhat putting off writing this blog, but there are only three more to go and I feel the moment is upon me. Personal prayer has, of course, been a vital part of my discernment. My difficulty is that that I don't have a method and I'm back in murky waters trying to convey anything about my personal prayer life. I don't have anything against methods, and I know many people find them helpful. For several years, I used to believe that if I could only find the right method a whole new world of certainty about divine mysteries would open up. I have, however, generally found myself either distracted by my consciousness of the method. Method thus became a barrier rather than assistance in my prayer life. The fact of needing a special method made prayer seem difficult.

One happy day, the thought crossed my mind that there was God, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, and here was little me, with none of those attributes, and exactly how hard was God going to make it for me? I steer clear of descriptions of God because our human perception and vocabulary can't describe the Infinite, but I do feel confident to say that God is not petty. This enables me to see my prayer life simply. Simplicity is the key. Everything about God is simple. We make the complications. We erect the barriers. Often that's a defence, because identifying complexity often means being able to argue that I would do what I think God is asking, but..., when God is actually suggesting simply that I DO IT.

This insight has really freed me in my personal prayer life. Sometimes I talk to God one on one (this includes complaining, asking, questioning, expressing gratitude, being angry, etc.); sometimes I just sit in silence and let whatever happpens happen: I let myself be in God. If my mind drifts, I offer the drift to God. In the last few years, I have re-discovered the value of devotional prayers, such as the rosary. I don't think God scores me on how I approach my prayer. I feel the important thing, as in so many aspects of life, is perseverance: keep on praying even when it's hard, when it's dry, when there is no answer. The purpose of my prayer is to help me enter more closely into the divine mystery and that means, frequently, praying into the darkness.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


I'm posting early because I shall be absent from my computer for a week doing some intensive study and reflection with my director. This means you will have about 10 days to ponder monastic obedience before my next post.

 It seems as if everyone has a view about what the promise of monastic obedience means. Usually it's seen as doing what you are told, and it's often implied that, in order to promise it, you have to be the kind of person who is unquestioning and quite happy to give up thinking for themselves. Well, it's not like that at all.

Firstly, it's important to see all the monastic promises as being made in the context of free will. As a consenting, adult person, I am choosing this life. I am choosing  to make these promises. I shall make them publicly on July 11, but every day of my life thereafter I shall be consciously recommitting myself to the choice and the promise. So, I am always freely obedient.

Secondly, monastic obedience isn't merely doing what you are told. It is not about being asked to suspend your intelligence and judgment. Essentially, it is about mutual listening. So, for example,  if you are asked to take on a new ministry, the question would only be put to you after the prioress or superior had prayerfully considered what the community needed and who might be the person to fulfill that need. The sister would then, in turn, be asked to discern the matter. The possibility exists to explain why you think this might not be a good fit, and to ask for it to be reconsidered. What I'm trying to show here is that monastic obedience is interactive and inter-personal. It's seminal to our life in community, which is underpinned by love and respect for the other. Therefore, it's not intended to negate anyone, but to enable the possibilities that flow from learning not to put ourselves first.

Finally, it's important to remember that, ultimately, our obedience is to God, and that always means taking a risk. In answering this call to make perpetual profession, I am certain that I am accepting an invitation from God and, in that sense, I think I'm right to do it. I'm right ... but in the dark. I don't know where it will lead, I don't know what the final outcome will be. But I am prepared to be obedient to it, trusting in God  that all shall be well: that through stability in the way of life, daily trying consciously to turn my life toward God (conversatio) and being obedient to what I hear God asking of me, I will become increasingly aware of the divine mystery permeating all creation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Stability is the promise which roots us as monastics. It's important to realize what stability is NOT about: it is not about geographical stability (being rooted to the spot); it is not about becoming stagnant and resistant to change.
So, what is the underlying meaning of the promise of stability? When I make this promise, I will understand that I commit myself to a way of life which is ordered by the Rule of Benedict. I will commit myself to this community, following the Rule, under the prioress elected by the community. In making this commitment, I don't have a guarantee that I will never live anywhere other than the motherhouse at Saint Benedict's Monastery. I could be asked to serve elsewhere but, in doing so, I would remain stable in my commitment because I would be serving (under obedience) where the community felt I was most needed. My commitment isn't to the place, but to the community, the way of life and, ultimately, to God.

The monastic promises flow into one another. It isn't really accurate to view them separately because they are three aspects of one commitment: the search for God. My promise of stability means that I commit myself in the long term to living Benedictine monastic life. Far from that meaning I will not change, it means that I commit myself to a way of life which will me enable to grow and to become more aware of God as I live into the other promises of fidelity to the monastic way of life (conversatio) and obedience. One of the ways, I have found it most helpful to characterize stability is to look at it as stability of purpose. It's been noticeable to me in these weeks since I was accepted by Chapter that, with one or two blips, it's been a very good feeling to be this side the request, but that my life, as I live it out daily, hasn't changed markedly. This is reassuring because it affirms that I haven't simply been jumping through hoops these past five years: I've really been committing to living the way of life I'm going to live for the rest of my life. This doesn't guard me from the normal ups and downs of life. I'm still going to experience life as an ordinary person, with an ordinary person's reactions, but through all, however I am feeling, will run the thread of stability which roots me in my primary purpose in choosing this way of life: seeking God.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


 As well as commitment to constant conversion and growth,  poverty and chastity are also included in the monastic promise of fidelity to the monastic way of life (conversatio). I've titled this blog Inclusions not just because these two aspects are included in the promise, but because they are often thought to be about issues of exclusion - what is given up or not done. In fact, both poverty and chastity are positives, not negatives; they are about choosing ways to live one's life which enable focus and growth in the search for God.

Monastic poverty is not about destitution. The Gospel does not tell us that it is a good thing to live in abject poverty. Indeed, destitution like this hampers the search for God because we become totally focused on our immediate physical needs. Monastic poverty has two aspects: moderation and common ownership. As you might expect of an aspect of conversatio, poverty is something you have to work at, to choose each day what is enough and what is surplus to need. Those choices are made in a context of complete dependency on the monastery for everything. So, for instance, those working in compensated employment outside the monastery do not take their own salary; it goes into a common pot from which each woman is given according to her need. It also means that not everyone receives exactly the same because each woman is an individual and needs vary. Monastic poverty is thus a way of ensuring that needs are met in a spirit of moderation and the community bond is enhanced because none of us owns anything privately and we each depend on the others for what we have.

Chastity is not the same as celibacy. A married couple is chastely married if they remain faithful to one another and to the marriage vows. Celibate chastity, which is what monastics promise, means that monastics don't marry and refrain from sexual activity. We don't make this promise in a spirit of negation, but as a positive choice to channel our sexual energy in a different way. We love and we have deep relationships. Healthy people need to love and be loved; healthy monastics are no different in this respect. The intention behind celibate chastity is not to stop us having friendships or establishing bonds of trust and love with others, but to enable an intentional focus on building a loving relationship with God. This, in turn, will fuel loving relationships with others and, at its finest, generate love for the whole of creation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Gift of Gnats

I've recovered from last week's bout of feeling badly done to and I'm ready to start with some zest on my series of blogs about the monastic promises. I'm going to begin with the promise which is currently translated as "fidelity to the monastic way of life" and in the past as "conversion of life". In the Latin of Benedict's Rule, the phrase is "conversatio morum", which is difficult to render precisely. What is important to grasp is that it does not  imply a one-off conversion, but a repeated effort to change, to grow, to live more deeply into the mystery of God. I decided to begin with this promise because last week's blog is an example of conversatio (as it's often referred to) in action.

Let me explain. Conversatio is about taking the daily, the routine, all the events of our lives, big and small (mostly small) and allowing the Spirit to work through them to draw us closer to God. Living in community is difficult. Being a monastic is difficult. You are with people most of the time. They don't always behave as you'd prefer. You live under obedience which, as we'll see in the obedience blog, doesn't mean you are voiceless, but it does mean you have to be able to relinquish control and live fully, not grudgingly, into situations and with decisions that you would not necessarily have made. You can look at these situations and be irritated, like I was last week, or you can accept them and choose to allow yourself to let their hugeness go, see them in perspective and come to understand that, in the eyes of God, they are not significant. The events are not significant in themselves; how you respond is.

When I was novice and I was very exercised by a number of issues, a sister gave me this piece of advice: Monastic life is like walking through a cloud of gnats. If you stop to swat each gnat you will never get anywhere. You just have to keep walking through them. It's true. You have to keep your eyes fixed on the goal, which is God. You have to keep persevering toward that goal, and not be distracted from it by the gnats, which at times can form a thick cloud of "I don't likes" and "I don't agrees". It's also true, though, that if you keep walking, persevering, eventually it pays off and you realize, for a blessed moment, that you are actually making some headway, and the gnats are, in fact, opportunities for grace: the daily happenings which bring about your transformation, if you approach them right. That's the gift of gnats. Of course, a new set of gnats arrives and the process repeats... and repeats... and repeats...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coffee Break

I'm not going to start on the monastic promises this week after all. I've been finding this period between being accepted for perpetual profession and actually making it rather unsettling. I very much want to profess, but I also want to feel on Cloud 9 about it, and I wasn't really feeling that. Life somehow seemed to be getting in the way, not big things, but not quite as I wanted it. In the back of my head a little voice kept whispering that these niggles were opportunities for grace, for transformation, for putting the needs of others before my own. In response a much louder voice shouted back, " I don't want these opportunities right now." The other day, I was feeling really quite down about things and I wanted someone to read my mind and make it right.

In this frame of mind, I enter the sisters' break room for my mid-morning break.
I pour a cup of coffee. A sister shares a piece about Easter by John Chrysostom. I feel better. I sit down. She compliments me on last week's blog. I tell her it feels different writing the blog now that my request to make perpetual profession has been accepted. It had become a discernment tool for a very specific purpose and now that purpose is fulfilled. I have things I can write about, but I'm experiencing a certain emptiness. She says, "Well, say that. Say it." So I am, and I feel better. It's not just to do with the blog (that's a symptom) but to do with my life situation, and I feel better for saying it. Another sisters says she works like a 'J' on the Myers Briggs, but she isn't really a 'J'. I'm surprised. I'm the same. I feel better. I say I have reservations about these personality tests because they can end up by putting people in boxes. One or two sisters agree. I feel better. Still on the subject of boxes, we talk about finding cardboard boxes to pack things in for an office move. I feel better. I put my cup in the dishwasher. A sister comments to me that she and I and a few others have the absurd gene, which is a gift, because it it helps you survive in community. Maybe we should start a group - Absurd Sisters? I feel better. I chat with another sister. I tell her some of my miseries. We start to laugh about it. I feel better.

Were these women reading my mind after all? Maybe these things that have loomed so large are, actually, pretty small? Maybe I can use them as opportunities for grace and transformation. Well, at least I could have a go and, as John Chrysostom tells me, just having a go is enough.

So, I want to end by saying "thank you" to the break room sisters for helping me rediscover my equilibrium. I'm looking forward to profession and I'm looking forward to life continuing to happen in the weeks leading up to July 11.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Promise, Profession and Perseverance

Two months until I make perpetual profession on July 11. There's a lot to do in terms of invitations, preparing for the practical details of the ceremony, really all the logistics of getting ready for any big celebration. There's also a deeper level of preparation which focuses on the promises I'll be making.

Until I started exploring Benedictine monasticism, I thought all religious orders made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, monastics in the Benedictine tradition promise stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life. The latter includes, but is not limited to, poverty and chastity. In these next few weeks I'm going to share a little about what these promises mean.

Before reflecting on each specific promise, I want to say something about what it means to make these promises. Profession is a public expression of the personal commitment that I am making to God, to this community, and to this way of life as the means of seeking God. Profession is not a sacrament in the way that baptism or marriage would be regarded as a sacrament, but it is a solemn act made before God and before witnesses in which I declare my intention to give my life to God through living the three monastic promises. There are two important elements: making the promises and then living them. The promises are not a formula which a woman recites to gain admittance to a society, but the declaration of an intention to live a way of life for her whole life. Profession is a moment in time, but the intention contained in that moment is to persevere in seeking God into eternity.

It is going to be a challenge to distill each promise in the next few weeks, because they are not really separate: each links into the other. I have reflected on the promises a lot during my years at the monastery and my understanding has developed over time. I hope this will continue, so please don't take what I'm now going to say as the final word on the subject. However, it seems to me that the unifying force within the promises is love. Ultimately, each one helps us, if we persevere, to move away from putting ourselves first, and enables us to develop our capacity to love beyond ourselves

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What If...and Beyond

I can begin with good news! My request to make perpetual monastic profession was accepted by the Admissions Chapter. However, you probably won't be surprised to know that I don't dash these blogs off and post them immediately. They have, in fact, become part of my discernment. This is the fruit of the process at a moment of uncertainty, before the Chapter, but its essence still applies.

I used to view discernment as finding an answer to a particular question, but this discernment towards a lifelong commitment in perpetual profession is not that. Essentially, I have known my answer to the question "Do I want to profess?" from before I entered as a postulant. I feel called by God to this life. The key discernment question for me is not "Shall I stay living this life?"but "Why would I stay living this life?" I think it's probably been clear from previous posts that the reason I would stay is that my life here consistently, if slowly, draws me into a greater awareness of God, more deeply into the divine mystery. I imagine (and hope) that this "Why?" question will stay with me for the rest of my life, not in the sense that I would be questioning whether I should still be here but because reflecting on the  "Why?" of monastic life guards against falling into the trap of going through the motions, and helps one keep moving forward, going deeper, allowing transformation to happen.

What if, at this point, I was in the position of wanting to say "yes" but the community had said "no"? I didn't really anticipate that happening, but it's a good question because it put me into a position where I had to look at the possibility of not getting what I wanted, and ask where God would be in that scenario. I would, of course, have been very upset, but if I gently put my emotional response to one side, I am left with a set of four very simple propositions:
  • God would still be God
  • The world would still exist
  • I would still be me
  • God would still be in me and in the world
Understanding this is immensely liberating because it hones my awareness that the order of creation is not shaken if I don't get my own way, that I am not the center of the universe and, most importantly, that my trust in God, and my desire to seek Him, is not dependant on what happens to me. It is an understanding which enables me to pray, without reservation, that I can give myself fully and unreservedly to God whatever the unknown future brings.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Choosing and Risking

This post is, I suppose, one of my "asides",  because it's going to be about what's going on in my head and heart, rather than on a specific subject. It helps to write these sometimes because I don't want either you or me to begin to feel that everything is clear. It's not. The water remains murky.

The impetus for this blog is that I am coming up to an important milestone next week: the Admissions Chapter. This is when I will go before the whole community (over 200 sisters) to make my request for perpetual profession. I am apprehensive. I don't mind speaking in front of people and I'm sure this is what I want to do, so I'm not consumed by fear, but I am apprehensive. This is for two reasons. Firstly, although sisters have been very supportive to me, I have no control over what happens in the Chapter, and I'm very conscious that my life is in their hands and I have to trust, trust,trust...

Secondly, I have a very strong sense of taking my life in my own hands. I see myself as having walked down a road towards perpetual profession for the past five years and suddenly the road has forked. I'm standing right at the fork and I'm not compelled to go one way or the other. I can take the way to perpetual profession or the way to another life. Whichever road I take, I don't know what lies along it. Either way is a risk. I'm choosing the profession road. And I'm very conscious that I have a choice. I don't have to go this way. Everything in the past five years has signposted me to this road but, as I stand at the fork and look down it, it is completely dark and featureless and all I can do is trust. trust, trust...

I think I have cause to be apprehensive! Yet, I have to say that there is a certain peace in understanding that I'm taking a risk and choosing to take it with my eyes wide open.  I also understand that, ultimately, when I say I have to trust, it is not myself, or even my sisters, that I'm trusting, but the Holy Spirit working in us.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Common Life

Community is a fact of Benedictine life. We are a defined group, choosing to live according to the Rule of Benedict, with a common purpose of seeking God. Do I feel that it works, that it helps me in my search for God? Yes. Do I find it easy? Sometimes, not always.

I had lived alone for a number of years before I entered the monastery, and I loved it. It's often said that women who enter are seeking community, but that wasn't really true for me. I felt called to to this place and this way of life, and the community kind of came with it. I don't think I'd ever thought about community, whether I wanted it or not, before I entered. I've been fortunate throughout my life to have mutually supportive relationships and I was very satisfied with what I had in that respect. I also loved having my own home and being able to spend time on my own.

I feel I ought to say now that coming to live in a large community (our motherhouse, where I live, houses about 140) was a huge adjustment, but it wasn't. I guess I just plunged in, and I felt accepted. I haven't always got everything right and I've discovered that the place is full of human beings! This means that we sometimes irritate one another, occasionally hurt one another or misjudge another's motives or actions; we don't always think the same way about things. Amazingly, however, we seem to live in a fair degree of harmony. I put this down to our common purpose of seeking God. Essentially, it seems that this common purpose is what marks out a monastic community from other types of community: the common endeavor focused on seeking God, the common life of prayer, the common table. We are cenobitic monastics, meaning we seek God together in the sense that our common life provides the framework for our seeking of God.

The rub of community life and of trying to understand the other (because you are going to have to keep on living with her - you can't go home and close the door on her) is a seminal part how monastic life can transform us. However, if living in community provides challenges, it also provides gifts. There is always someone to turn to for help and support, who can understand what you're experiencing and, because our life is directed essentially towards seeking God, we are able together to create a framework which helps each individual woman deepen her search. A phrase from the monk, Thomas Merton, has stayed with me. It's to the effect that Community is not about forced togetherness. At its best, I see it as an intentional gathering of like-minded people who, in the externals of background and interests, may be very different, but manage to channel their diversity so that each can contribute to the building of a unity of purpose: seeking God.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a Latin phrase which translates as 'holy reading'. It occupies an essential place in Benedictine life. Benedictines rate all education, study and reading highly, but lectio divina (often referred to just as lectio) is a slow, meditative way of reading the scriptures or other holy text which concentrates on what the words are saying to me, personally, at this time, rather than on information or facts.

I have always loved reading so, when I came to our monastery as a visitor and had an opportunity to learn how to do lectio, I seized it. I wasn't disappointed. This was at the stage where I was thinking where I should go with my life and my introduction to lectio was one of the elements that helped me to understand how I was being called to monastic life.

Now, it's easy to keep doing something when you first start and are swept up on a tide of enthusiasm. The challenge came when I realized that I was supposed to do lectio every day, not as part of "class" with a definite meeting time. This meant finding a space in my busy day to sit and read a passage several times, prayerfully, trying not be distracted by what I needed to get done next. As I look back, it seems to me that the discipline of forming the habit of daily lectio has been as important as the activity itself. It becomes a means of setting aside time to be with God. The Rule of Benedict is about seeking God, and you simply can't do that if you don't have specific times in the day that are intentionally devoted to doing just that. This isn't to say that I don't find God in my interactions with people, because I do, both within the community and the world outside. Indeed, God is always present, but lectio, Eucharist, LoH and personal prayer are times when I deliberately make myself aware of the presence of God. In saying that time alone with and for God is necessary, I am not implying that it's the only thing that matters. Rather, it's about ensuring that our lives are fully integrated.

Just a final word, so you don't get the impression I'm now perfectly disciplined. I have days when my timetable goes haywire or I don't make the best choices about my priorities. I need help sometimes to keep focused. That's where community can be a gift. There's a sister who often asks me what my lectio today was. That spurs me on to make myself do it, not so much because I don't want to admit I didn't, but because it tells me somebody cares and that she cares because she knows that it matters.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eucharist: Desire and Discipline

The Rule of Saint Benedict does not specify how frequently monastics should attend the Eucharist (Mass). Mostly it has not been an option to attend daily, and that holds true for many women's communities today. However, here at Saint Benedict's we are blessed to have priests come most days from Saint John's Abbey, located about six miles away, and to have the local parish church practically in our back yard.

Since not everyone who reads this blog is Catholic, I'll  say a little about the Eucharist in the Catholic faith. Our belief is that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, it becomes the true Body and Blood of Christ. It is not simply a remembrance or a symbol. Christ is really present on the altar: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This great mystery of faith is called the Real Presence.

When I was converted to Roman Catholicism, belief in the Real Presence was central to my conversion experience. However, I have never previously lived a life where daily attendance at Eucharist was possible. In the years before I entered the monastery, however, my desire to attend Sunday Mass became deeper. Participating fed my sense of mystery and connection with the divine. Entering the monastery provided the opportunity to attend Mass and receive Communion every day. You might suppose I was pleased by that. Not so.

Now, I should say that we are not forced to attend daily, nor is it always possible. So, I had some freedom of choice here. Initially, I went most days but I started to feel that my longing for Communion was blunted  by the frequency, and so I would take "days off". Somehow, that never felt satisfactory. I couldn't find the perfect formula for number of attendances per week. This is where living as part of a community of women seeking God helped me to move on. Over the years (note, I grew slowly into my present position), I talked with various sisters about daily Eucharist and a recurrent theme seemed to be that if you discipline yourself to keep going, your desire to go grows deeper. I never made a conscious decision to begin going whenever it was possible, but somehow eased into it, and I'm finding they were right. I go whether I feel emotionally drawn to attend or not. It is an act of will, a choice which I now see as another way that I put my trust in God and give myself over to the path I've chosen to follow. Like so much in monastic life, it rarely yields a huge "high", but if I look back over the weeks and months, I see how my sense of Christ has deepened, and how the expectation that it will continue to deepen feeds my desire to attend.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Liturgy of the Hours

In my last post, I made the point that the Liturgy of the Hours (LoH) is our central community act, when three times a day we come together to pray. In this post, I'm going to explore what it feels like to commit to this and the effect that participating has on my spiritual life.

When I first started attending LoH, I thought it was wonderful, directly and perceptibly uplifting to me. It was like a fix three times a day. I have learned that this was part of the honeymoon. There are still times when a line suddenly strikes me from a psalm and seems to speak directly to me; times when our chanting seems to put me on another plane and I am drawn beyond myself; times when I become acutely conscious that not only am I bound together with my community in this activity, but that we are encompassing the whole world as we pray. These experiences are the ideals of what LoH should be. Would that it were always so!

On a bad day, I am distracted by things like pace, delivery, the scenery outside, my own thoughts, etc., etc. It is certainly not now the case that every time I attend LoH I have a good experience. So, why do I keep going? Well, after the initial delight wore off, it became a matter of choice, self-discipline and trust. I accepted that I was freely choosing to commit to this life and that LoH was an essential part of that commitment. Therefore, I had to discipline myself to attend, whether I wanted to or not. This is not as strange as it may seem. I recognized that in saying I felt called to this life, I was looking to be changed by it, to draw closer to God and I couldn't know if it would effect those things if I didn't live it fully. I guess that led to me to practice (practise, if you're English) the virtue of perseverance. I carry on going through dry times, trusting that I will finally reap a benefit in terms of my spiritual journey.

Unfortunately, I can't end by saying that I've had a great epiphany. I'm basically still persevering, but as I persevere, I am becoming dimly aware of being changed. Some of it is that the regular and frequent attendance at LoH has made God feel more pivotal in my life; I'm more conscious of the divine threading through the day, but beyond that is also a sense that I'm changed within, that I myself am threaded through the divine. I trust that, if I continue to persevere, I will continue to change, grow and draw closer to God.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Living the Life

In the next weeks, I'm going to continue focusing on particular topics, rather than reverting to a chronological story of my vocation.This is because, when the the honeymoon time as a postulant was over, I started living into what it means to commit myself to this life. One of the things I've come to realize is that one keeps learning and going deeper but the issues themselves don't change. Helpful images that sisters has given me to describe this process are that it's like a spiral: you move upward, but you're also going round and round, or that it's like peeling an onion: you think you've learned something, then you find there's another skin to peel and you learn again.

In order for you to make sense of some of the topics I'll be dealing with, it will be helpful to have some insight into what living in the monastery is like. Contrary to popular perception, we do not float around all day meditating, undisturbed by normal activities like work or doing the laundry. Life in a monastery is very full. Our day is divided between prayer, work and recreation. Communal prayer, known as Liturgy of the Hours (LoH), is our central community act. Our prayer is rooted in scripture, particularly the psalms. Our regular schedule is to pray together three times a day (early morning, noon, evening), and to attend Mass. Health permitting, sisters work either in compensated positions outside the monastery or in some form of community service; this is because we have to pay the bills and keep the monastery functioning. Three meals a day are served in our refectory and joining together at the common table is important for us, relaxing and enjoying food and conversation. You may notice that the pronoun 'we' has come up a lot. This is significant because the basis of Benedictine living is community: we go to God together.

I wouldn't like you to get the impression that we are clones. Quite the reverse! There are many characters living in community and ideally we are all seeking God as our own authentic selves. This means that if a sister has a particular gift or talent she is encouraged to use it, but always for the good of the community. It means that we choose our own friends, but not in such a way that we exclude others. It means that we can be sociable or choose solitude, but always bearing in mind how our choice affects the community. It is difficult to achieve a position of perfect poise; in fact, I have discovered that failing to do so, and trying again, is an intrinsic part of monastic life. It is an aspect of perseverance which is essential to monastic living.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rule of Benedict

As Benedictines, we commit to living according to the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century. March 21 is St. Benedict's feast day, so it seems appropriate today to pose the question: Why would a woman living in 21st century America (or England), choose to live a life whose pattern was laid down by a man, in Italy, 1,500 years ago? I'm setting myself quite a challenge by trying to answer this in 250 words, but here goes...

Much of the Rule gives very practical instruction about how to live daily life. Fundamentally, it takes a holistic view of human beings (body, mind and spirit) through advocating a life of prayer, work, reading and adequate rest. Through the centuries, it has been adapted to suit the time and local conditions, something for which Benedict makes provision. However, there are underlying essentials which are as necessary and precious today as they were to Benedict's own community. It is these that I want to unravel.

For me, the first essential is that Benedict puts God as the primary focus, and seeking God as the essential activity in our lives. Secondly, all through the Rule, he calls us to be our authentic selves. Benedict's community is not about conformity, but about common purpose. The common purpose is seeking God, but each person does it as a unique individual. For Benedict, developing our authenticity comes through humility. By humility, he absolutely does NOT mean having a low opinion of ourselves or exhibiting false modesty. He means that we have to accept ourselves as the flawed human beings that we are, understand our total dependence on God, as opposed to ourselves or others, and understand that God loves us exactly as we are. As we come to develop this true understanding of ourselves, we become more and more able to accept the shortcomings of others, and not just tolerate them, but love them in all their humanness.

Of course, this doesn't happen overnight: it requires patience, perseverance and trust during dark times. It is achieved through struggle, and Benedict's practical "rules" for how we should conduct our lives are intended as a guide to help us manage the struggle. In future blogs I shall be reflecting on the practices of our daily life. Today, I'm content to realize that the reason the Rule calls me is because it grounds me, teaching me to love through humility, and to draw closer to God through loving.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Discerning Discernment

As a postulant, novice and woman in first profession, I have been in the stage of monastic life known as initial formation. This is the time when a woman learns about monastic life, in theory and in practice, and reflects on whether this really is what God is calling her to. In other words, it's a time of discernment: in this context, specifically religious discernement.

I'm going to be really honest and confess that, although I'd heard the term used many times, and understood its meaning, I wasn't really clear how I should actually do it. Were there definite steps, a protocol? How did I distinguish what God was telling me from what I merely fancied doing? Did other people know some secret method I didn't? I can say that over these years of initial formation, I have come to a deeper understanding of what discernment is (I had, in fact, being doing it for many years), but I have to warn you that we are back in murky water here, so please abandon any hope that I shall be offering an ABC guide!

What I can say about my call to monastic life is that when I let it in, it was the working of grace. My part was to choose to open myself sufficiently to allow grace to work in me. It seems to me that free will and choice are seminal to the discernment process. Making the choice to desire to desire to be open to God, and God's grace, is a prayer in itself, a prayer which will be answered. You don't have to do anything other than decide that you want the gift of an open heart. Actually, beyond that, you can't do anything because you're not in control. You can't seize the grace, earn or merit it; you part is to desire it and accept it when it's given. When it is, and you recognize in that inner part of your being that God is working in you, a practical help that I have found comes from a Jesuit discernment practice. Imagine the path you might be called to follow - does it feel like water dripping onto a hard rock and bouncing off, or does it feel like water dripping onto a sponge and being soaked up? If the latter, then it is probably the right path.

For me, entering the monastery has always felt like water soaking into a sponge. However, that doesn't mean that I don't get distracted and irritated by the difficulties that are part of daily living, and sometimes they make me feel I'd rather be a million miles away in some other life. At these times, I find it helpful to go back to the moment of enlightenment, when God felt so close and the call so clear,  and ask myself, "Has anything really happened that negates the truth of that moment?" No. So I dust myself down and keep going.

A final word: discernment is ultimately not about knowing, but about trusting

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Hard Was Easy

The time between August 25, 2007, when I entered the monastery as a postulant, and July 6, 2008, when I was received into the novitiate, was a time of grace. I didn't recognize it then, but  as I look back over my nearly five years in the monastery, it stands out very clearly to me. For the first two months, I was homesick, which took me by surprise. It wasn't the first time I'd moved to a new place (even though this was further than ever before). I'd visited for long periods over the previous two years and had a lot of supportive relationships in the community. However, even feeling homesick was okay; sisters were so understanding and I had enough life experience to know that, if you just wait, it will pass. So, there was grace even in the homesickness.

At the two month point, I started simply to like the life. I knew in my head that I was doing a huge thing in entering, but inside me, it was easy because it just seemed right and natural. Going to community prayers three times a day - easy. Living with a group of women when I'd been happily living alone, settling into a new country and culture, changing from working in academia to working in housekeeping, giving up control of my life - all easy. I simply couldn't find anything that I didn't love about the life. And I just accepted it and supposed that it would go on being like that forever because I was the right person in the right place. 

I was not unreflective during this period, but it seemed to me (I now think both naively and arrogantly) that I had done this BIG THING in leaving my former life behind and that I was being rewarded for the sacrifice. I was here in this lovely life and now I was going to get on with seeking God undisturbed and untroubled.

Hard was easy through these months. One could say that I was unrealistic, ignorant about what I was letting myself in for, and maybe I was, but I truly see this as a time of grace. The fact that it was easy allowed me to settle into the life without being distracted by the question, "Do I like it?' As I have lived more deeply (and less easily) into monastic life, it has seemd more and more certain to me that staying here, committing to the life, is not about likes and dislikes, but essentially about whether living it, in what turns out to be all  its messiness, is bringing me closer to God.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Murky Waters

As I read through some of my past entries, I'm conscious that I keep repeating how I felt a sense of rightness and a certainty that God was calling me to monastic life. This is true. What is not true is that I have a hotline to God which means that I know, rationally and beyond doubt, what my next move is. I do not.

It is a common assumption that if a person says 'I believe', they are affirming that they know certain things about God and the divine, in the same way that they know that water is wet, blood red, etc. In reality, to say 'I believe' is to assent to the fact that I do not know, but that I accept that my experience, the essence of my being, tells me that there is something more, something beyond anything that I can comprehend. This is the basis of faith and because it is about what our minds can't comprehend,  we have necessarily launched ourselves into the dark, sailing in very murky waters.

I don't have an infallible answer about how to navigate the murky waters. Apologies. What I want to make clear is that there is nothing different about me; I don't have any kind of exclusive communication with God. Sometimes I can open myself suffciently to an awareness that gifts me with flashes of insight into something greater, but most of the time there is silence. I have faith, but I also doubt. If I didn't doubt, I couldn't have faith because faith is about trusting beyond my limits, beyond my own capacity for anything. When I was first letting in the idea of a religious vocation, the visual image that came to me was of myself standing on the edge of a cliff. I felt as if I was being asked to jump off that cliff into absolute darkness. I could not know what was in the darkness, where or whether I would land. If I chose to leap, I did so blindly, simply trusting that Something would be there in the darkness. There is.

Stylistically, it is tempting to leave ,"There is" as the final statement on this blog, and I could do so because my experience tells me it is so. It might, however, suggest that the water is no longer murky, that the endeavor is complete. Well, truth is the water is still murky, and I know I have a long way to go.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Leaving All

On August 24, 2007, I closed the door of my own home in England for the last time and journeyed further into a different life. I won't say it didn't feel momentous, because it did, but I also had a sense that it couldn't possibly be me who was doing this.

The time between becoming an affiliate and entering was very graced; I didn't realize how much at the time. I felt so at one with God that I floated through selling my house, disposing of my possessions, saying "goodbye" to people. [This is an aside, but I want to dispel here a myth that monasteries are out to take all your money instantly. I chose to sell my house; the monastery took no part in that decision. As a postulant, novice and in first profession, a woman does not use her own resources, learns by degrees to live depending entirely on the monastery; she does not relinquish ownership of her assets until making perpetual profession.] 

Back to the story: reality hit as I sat on the train taking me to London where I would catch my flight to the USA. I cried throughout the four-hour journey. I cried throughout the night in a lonely hotel room, and all the way on the plane from London to Minneapolis. However, I can't say that at any point I nearly changed my mind and turned back. I rested somewhere deep inside on the sense that God was leading me along this path and, although I wasn't enjoying it very much at present, it was still the right direction. That sense of rightness and peace permeated the first two months at Saint Benedict's, which were spent experiencing some extreme pangs of homesickness as I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't visiting here anymore. I wasn't visiting and then going home because this was home now.

My initial days at the monastey were, however, a very positive experience of community life. When I arrived from the airport, I was met by a sister who has consistently been a rock of support, greeted with great joy and love by the sisters with whom I would live for the next two years, and supported through the next two months with much care and sensitivity to how I was feeling. I was sad, but I wasn't unhappy, and I never felt alone.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Technical Terms

It is very easy when you live or work in a specialized environment to use terms routinely and forget that they may be new to others. I was made a aware of this recently when someone enquired whether as I was a sister, as I'm writing about the journey towards profession. The answer is that I am a sister, but I haven't made a 'forever' commitment as yet. So, I'm going to define the stages of the path to the 'forever' commitment. First, I'll take the opportunity to labor that point that it takes a very long time to become a fully-fledged Benedictine sister - five years minimum. This is the sequence in our monastery:
  • Affiliate - accepted for entry to the monastery but still lives regular life in the secular world (about 6-18 months).
  • Postulant - enters monastery, lives the monastic life but works part-time in a lay or community service job; begins classes related to monastic living (9-10 months).
  • Novice - deeper level of commitment; no outside work, limited community service; intensive study of monasticism, theology, scripture. Canon law requires that the novice does not leave the monastery for the whole year of what is called the canonical novitiate, except for certain defined activities. The novitiate may be extended for a second year but with fewer restrictions.
  • First Profession - the woman makes a commitment for a defined number of years (usually three); she lives alongside perpetually professed sisters, continues to study, and also works full-time either outside or within the community. After a minimum of three years, she can ask to make perpetual profession. This is the stage I am at, coming towards the end of my third year of first profession.
  • Perpetual Profession - the first professed sister and community discern together whether perpetual commitment is where the Spirit is leading. If that seems to be the case, then the prioress (the elected spiritual leader of the monastic community) grants the first-professed sister's request for perpetual monastic profession, which means the sister promises to live the rest of her life as a member of this Benedictine community, following the Rule of Saint Benedict (more about this another time).
You may have noticed that I haven't used the word 'vow'. This is because we now use the terms 'monastic profession' or 'monastic promises' when talking about our commitment.

Well, I think that completes the crib sheet of  technical terms. Next week, I'll continue with my journey.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An Easy Yoke

I returned to England in April, 2006, to live out, in my own surroundings, the idea of entering Saint Benedict's Monastery. The plan was that if I still felt the same in the fall, I would return to the monastery for a longer visit, living, praying and working as part of the sisters' community, rather than as part of Studium. For the first six weeks, despite the fact that it was genuinely good to be home, the only thing I wanted to do was get back to Saint Benedict's. I had a deep sense that this was where I needed to be to find the "something more" I'd been looking for.  I told very few people what I was considering. This was because I wanted to keep my mind open and not place myself in a position where I had to defend the decision to enter before I had fully made it.

I was also aware that I couldn't simply mark time in England. You may remember that I had given up my job before I came on my second visit to Studium. I had to construct a life I might go on living, which would feed and clothe me. If I didn't do this, I wouldn't be measuring my desire to enter against a real life. I look back now on this phase and am amazed at the grace that flowed. A collection of small jobs seemed to drop down in front of me, which paid my bills, but didn't commit me in ways that would make it difficult to spend three months later in the year living at the monastery.

Well, the result was that I constructed a very agreeable life that enabled to me to live simply, remaining in close contact with my friends and family, while giving me more time for God - just what I'd originally thought I wanted! So, by the time I returned to the monastery in September, 2006, I definitely came with an open mind and would, indeed, have been very glad to discover that I did not have a monastic vocation after all.

I was disappointed. I was so happy here right from the start. The life just seemed to fit. I recall being at Mass one day, about a week after I arrived, wondering if it could really be so easy, and the words, "My yoke is easy and my burden light" floated effortlessly across my mind. The result of the visit was that I started the formal process of requesting to enter, which is quite lengthy, and involved making another visit, for a month, around Easter 2007. It was at this stage that I was accepted as an affiliate, which means that my request to enter the monastery was granted, but that I continued living my regular life, in my own home, for another few months.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hearing the Call

Last week, I recounted my final weeks of resisting hearing God's call. This week, I'm going to talk about what it felt like when God used a megaphone so I couldn't avoid hearing!

I had been at Saint Benedict's Monastery for nine weeks. In the tenth week, I felt that I had sorted out what I was going to do with my future. I was very grateful for the time I'd spent here, but looking forward to going home. I felt settled and then ... in conversation with a sister, I spoke about my beliefs and aspirations and she posed the question, "Have you ever spoken to the Director of Vocations?" I find it quite hard to describe what happened then. It was very gentle but it was as if something shattered in my mind and there was nothing between me and God. I didn't suddenly think, "Oh, yes, I want to be a nun!" Rather, it was like understanding very calmly that I had to go further, that I was being offered an opportunity that I shouldn't ignore.
Initially, I was in a frame of mind that said, "Yes, I'll go and talk about vocation, and if the Director says 'No', then it won't be my fault. I'll have gone as far as I can." In the days that followed, however, I started to feel very differently. The only way I can describe it is that I fell in love with God; I knew that the only way I could live out that love was to give my whole self to God, and that the way I was called to give my whole self was to enter the monastery. So, from hoping that the Director of Vocations would refuse me, I moved to hoping against hope that she would accept me. This was a really testing time for me because all I could do was put my life in God's hands and trust that all would be well. 

It was. When I met with the Director of Vocations, she agreed that there was something to explore. I'll talk more about that next week, but let me say now that it is not possible to think you'd like to join the monastery and just do it. I was certain on March 8, 2006 that this was what God was calling me to do. I know that I'm blessed to have remained certain through the following years, but I also know I'm blessed that it cannot be a hurried decision because moving through the stages of commitment has certainly been part of a movement towards God.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Being Muddled

I came back to Saint Benedict's early in 2006 for a three-month visit, intending to use this partly as a time to discover what I wanted to do in the future. I teetered around the whole question of whether I might have a religious vocation, and spent nine weeks exploring why I couldn't possibly have one! I couldn't have one if I didn't want one - right?                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Somewhere in the back of my mind was the lurking thought that I should maybe get this vocation thing into the open and come to a reasoned conclusion as to why I did not have one. I had a wonderful spiritual director in one of the sisters and with her, alongside other things, I began to explore this lurking feeling of vocation. I prayed for an open heart but, at a kind of subterranean level, I hoped that I would be able to banish the idea of a religious call further into the shadows, rather than bringing it out into the light. I wanted to listen to God, but I also wanted Him to say what I wanted to hear. Yet, beyond that, I always wanted to follow where He led me. If this sounds muddled, all I can say is that it is often murky in my mind. I do not follow a clearly lit, straight path, taking a planned stop every now and then to apply a crystalline analysis to my situation.. More usually, I swim around in cloudy water, hoping to find the surface but not always sure what direction it's in, but I believe if we are truly seeking, eventually  we hear the still, small  voice guiding us.  

Here, I'd like to dispel any idea that, if you show interest in a religious vocation, monasteries are out to grab you. My director helped me to explore my thoughts and perceptions: she absolutely never pushed me to one conclusion or another. I am very grateful for this because when I finally heard God's voice, I was sure it was between God and me alone, no-one else's voice was interfering in the background.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Who and Why?

January 18: This is my week for saying a little bit about myself, so that you know who's speaking, and a little bit about how I come to be here at Saint Benedict's Monastery.

Well, you already know my name. I'm an only child. My father died when I was 5 and my mother about 13 years ago. I come from the United Kingdom where, although I don't have any immediate family, I have an aunt, several cousins and extended family, and a number of very close friends. I was brought up as an Anglican, but knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to be a Catholic. I took instruction whilst a student at Oxford University, where I studied Philosophy and Theology, and was received into the Catholic Church when I was 20. Following my BA, I worked for 18 months as a nursing assistant at a hospice in London, and eventually trained as a Registered Nurse.  My clinical specialties were hospice and ophthalmic care, but most of my career was spent in healthcare research, concentrating on quality of life issues for patients and families. I obtained an MSc (Keele University, UK) in 1992 and a PhD (Manchester University, UK) in 1996. I always saw work as being something which should flow out of my faith and convictions. I guess healthcare work fulfilled that theoretically but, while I have certainly experienced great satisfaction from some of the work I did, I always felt that something was missing. I wanted more.

By 2005, I had reached a stage in my life where I knew that I wanted to simplify it, pare it down and have more space for prayer and for God. I'll just pause at this point to say that I was, in many ways, very happy. I was blessed to have close, loving and supportive relationships, opportunities to travel and recreate in ways that I found satisfying and life-giving, and work that had the potential to help others. I wouldn't describe myself as being overly religious, in the sense that I wasn't very involved in parish life. However, I spent quite a lot of time talking to God, made a retreat occasionally and have been blessed with friends who, whatever their religious belief and practice, took their inner life seriously and with whom I could explore issues about faith and the meaning of life. There just kept being this inner "voice" that was saying, "There must be something more."

So, how did I get to Saint Benedict's Monastery? I believe the Holy Spirit led me... and was I unsuspecting! I will be honest and say that for the previous 10 or 12 years the thought had come to me periodically that maybe I was called to religious life, but I NEVER wanted to be a nun, so I always pushed it away with a "Why would I want to do that?" I had certainly never looked for any order to enter. If I had, I would have looked for places in England, so the ideas of 'monstery-me-America' were not connected in my mind. I'll  go into more detail about what happened next week but, for now, the bare fact is that I came originally to the Studium program (see our website  for details) for two weeks in the summer of 2005, never in a million years thinking that I was coming to what would turn out to be my new home.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Today is January 11, 2012. In six months’ time on July 11, the Feast of Saint Benedict, I hope to make perpetual monastic profession as a sister in this community. Please note that I’m using the verb ‘hope’. Committing myself to this life is not simply about what I want; it is a three-way process between me, the Sisters who make up the monastic community and, most importantly, God.  I have to answer the question: Do I honestly believe that God is calling me to this life? The Sisters have to answer the questions: Do we honestly believe that this woman is truly seeking God and is called to seek as part of this community?  With the help of the Holy Spirit, between us we trust that the path will be made clear.

Religious vocation is a mystery. It certainly was to me before I entered, and still is after four and half years living the life. As part of my discernment, I thought I’d like to explore the mystery, as I am experiencing it, through writing some short reflections on the process to share with people who have an interest in our monastery (which I’m assuming you do as you are reading our web page). For the next six months, I’ll be posting a blog every Wednesday. Next week, I’ll tell you a bit about who I am and how I come to be here.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB